WHILE serving as a superintendent of schools, I heard one of my experienced teachers state that the three best things about teaching were June, July, and August. While I chuckled, I couldn't help thinking, "With comments like that, it's not surprising that parents are withdrawing their support from the public schools."
For the entire history of our public-school system, we have had extensive summer vacations. We also have vacations during the school year: Thanksgiving, Christmas break (whose length equals many adults' annual vacation), other holidays, and spring break. School is in session 175-180 days - less than half the year.
In addition, the school day is short, usually less than six hours of class time. Studies have found that "time-on-task" is the single most important factor in quality education. Yet schools generally spend about three hours a day on meaningful instruction.
The school buildings themselves usually constitute the largest single investment the community has made, larger than the city hall, county buildings, hospitals, or parks. With a 24-hour day and a 365-day year, schools are potentially available 8,760 hours a year. We use them about 1,080 hours per year - 12.3 percent of the potential time! No other business in town could survive using its facilities at 12 percent of their potential.
Many teachers spend most of September - one-ninth of the total school year - reviewing the previous year's work with the students. We are wasting a great deal of time - roughly a year and a half of a student's total public school career. If we can salvage an additional 20 minutes per day of instruction time, over the course of a student's 13-year public school career we can add 780 hours of instruction - roughly 156 days, or almost one full year.
Some educators state that students can't stand school more than 180 days, five or six hours per day. They would have us believe that students are needed at home, that children need to be outside during the summer months playing.
In high-achieving countries, students attend school up to seven hours per day, as many as 240 days per year, with no ill effects. Some studies indicate that students are healthier during the months they attend school. Most American children have little to occupy them during summer vacation. Many sleep until noon, then watch television until midnight. If both parents work, they are left either with a sitter or unsupervised much of the day. Daylight savings time gives children and their parents more than a dequate daylight hours for outdoor activities.
How about educators themselves? Many people agree that teachers - at least the good ones - are underpaid. It is hard to hold quality people when they are trapped in a single-salary schedule that pays the poor, the average, and the excellent teacher according to longevity rather than the quality of teaching.
Many teachers would welcome the opportunity to work full time, with the recognition and benefits (spelled "dollars") due a full-time professional. A number of activities could be better carried out during summer months: science field trips, physical education and recreation activities, driver education, programs for gifted and talented students, remedial programs, and special "camps" for mathematics, literature, science, drama, and music.
We might well overcome the current shortage of qualified math and science teachers if we held summer programs for students who need or want intensive instruction. A six-hour-a-day, two-week camp or workshop would probably accomplish considerably more than a standard 55-minute period, offered for a full academic year.
Other full-time teachers might be employed to work with students with special gifts or special learning problems during the summer, either on a one-to-one basis or in small groups.
If we could develop teaching as a full-time profession, we wouldn't have to worry about low salaries or low public image. If a teacher currently works 180 days, five hours a day (you can't really count lunch time or planning periods as work time), and earns a beginning salary of $18,000, that teacher makes $20 per hour, excluding benefits, for actual work time.
If the day could be expanded two hours, the annual salary would increase to over $25,000 for the same 180 days.
If, using that concept, we could expand the work year to 240 work days, the teacher could earn almost $34,000. That is a respectable salary.
If the teacher had been making $25,000 per year, or about $23 per hour plus benefits, and we could add two hours of professional work per day (about $185 per day), he or she could then make about $45,000 per year.
There would still be a number of fine teachers who, for one reason or another, would not want to work the 240-day year. They would be permitted to continue as part-time teachers for only 180 or so days a year. They would continue to receive the lower salary, frozen after three to five steps on the salary schedule.
Individually, this arrangement would be good for students and teachers. Collectively, America might find itself more competitive with the academic achievements of other countries. We would be getting the best from our educational resources, our teachers, and our school buildings - but especially from the students themselves.